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chapter 1

Healthy Skepticism, and a Field Theory for the Emergence of Chan Literature

Part One: The Art of Zen

In the wake of twentieth-century popular and scholarly writings, Chan (Zen) typically appears as a charming and inscrutable mix of Buddhist wisdom and sagely ease. Moreover, it is regularly associated with a kind of über-authenticity: Chan is completely Buddhist and yet unfettered by tradition, basking, so it seems, in the sunshine of being the religion beyond religion, with a truth that uniquely transcends right and wrong and a philosophy that, conveniently, has only ineffable tenets. And yet when we look closely at the history of Chan, and its gradual emergence in Tang dynasty (618–907) literature, we see a very different and troubling profile—troubling, that is, for those who like to think of religion and politics as separate activities, and imagine that truth, and the literature that purveys it, comes from truth and not a host of other less